“The Empire Never Ended” – Thatcher and the end of democracy

Margaret Thatcher

So there it is. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first -and so far only- female prime minister has shuffled off her mortal coil at the grand old age of 87. I’ll make something clear: unlike some, although not as many as claimed by The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, who decry any such outbursts of cynical joy as manifestations of the entire “Left”, that terrible, intangible -i.e. pretty much non-existent- social group those two newspapers seem to fear and loathe so much, I take no pleasure in the death of an old woman with dementia. Death is a grim specter that hangs over all of us, and the only significance of Thatcher’s actual demise is that it reminds us of how fragile life is. Other than that, it is a meaningless event. For those of us who rejected her politics during her tenure as PM, and who continue to do so as her legacy casts a sinister shadow over the entirety of UK politics, any celebrations of her passing are not only a bit tasteless but, more importantly, pointless.

But, let’s get something else straight: Margaret Thatcher was a hated woman. She inspires more revulsion than almost any other politician in modern British history. This is not some mean-spirited posturing by the SWP, or a reaction restricted to communist comedians on Radio 4, no matter how much the Mail would like to claim them as the sole spokespersons of the “Left”. Up and down the country there are people who despised Margaret Thatcher, not out of some sort of silly tribalism, but because her policies wrecked their lives and those of people they cared about. This is a reality, and no amount of attempted trivialisation/sensationalising (delete as applicable) on the part of the right-wing press will succeed in obfuscating that (especially not Toby Young’s juvenile suggestion that, had it not been for Maggie, someone like Mark Steel would have wound up in a gulag. Yes, Young’s paid to write such crass drivel). If the tasteless outpourings of glee signify anything, it’s that Thatcher was a divisive and traumatising figure for large numbers of this country’s populace. And guess what? Because of that, we’re not happy with talk of a sort of state funeral. We’re not happy with the sycophantic eulogies currently being proffered by our politicians and most news outlets. We’re not happy that she will get the kind of send-off usually reserved for war heroes and royalty. For a lot of us, she doesn’t deserve it. Maybe the hacks at the Mail and Telegraph should try considering that before turning on their sneer-and-outrage buttons.

Equally, however, those of us who loathed her need to remember some key facts. Margaret Thatcher stands today as the most successful and significant prime minister this country has had since Churchill. She was in office a stunning 11 years, one more than her closest rival -in modern electoral success terms- Tony Blair, and you can’t argue that she transformed this country, perhaps irrevocably. She oversaw economic upturn in several sectors, a wildly popular jingoistic war, and cemented the UK’s relationship with the USA, re-establishing it as a significant global power. This country would not be what it is without her, generally for worse, but sometimes for the better. I don’t want to hide from these facts. There is a large number of people who will, despite being part of the working class she generally scorned, forever adulate her because she allowed them to buy their council flats and injected a bit of national pride into their hearts; or who could identify and admire her rise from a lower middle class background to head of a party and then country dominated by men. We can of course discuss at length the merits of any particular policy, and many others, but that won’t deter from the fact that many people, of all backgrounds, not just Tory toffs and City boys, adored Thatcher, and always will.

Therein lies the fundamental problem for any analysis of the events of the past two days, and of the upcoming week or so: Thatcher won. She may be dead, but she won. Her policies were almost always hideous. She targeted the poorest in the country and systematically dismantled any aspects of their communities and societies that would allow them to oppose her free-market capitalism. She destroyed unions, aided and abetted by a vicious campaign against them by her allies in the press, spearheaded by -who else?- Rupert Murdoch, whose hold on Britain’s media narrative and political class was established at the height of Thatcher’s reign. Supported by the rhetoric of his and other papers, she demonised those on welfare, the working class and left-wing politics to the point that the latter became unpalatable to large sections of a middle class electorate rendered better off by her other policies and the boom of the financial sector. It was a phenomenal exercise in divide-and-rule: as the poorest plunged into unemployment, their communities -especially in the industrial North, Scotland and Wales- brushed aside, with the nouveaux riches and big corporations, benefiting from increased deregulation and the unwavering privatisation of public services, becoming her vocal cheerleaders, even as services such as transport, energy and telecommunications, supposedly ones intended to serve the people, became the playthings of the very richest, and an increasing financial burden on the rest. But, hey, so long as we could feel good about caning some Argies and owning a council flat that once could have housed a poor family, who cared -among the middle classes and above- if the train service got worse and gas and electricity prices rose? We weren’t all in it together, to coin a phrase from Thatcher’s descendents, but most of us didn’t even notice. Those that did were comprehensively deprived of a voice.

She may be dead, but the “reforms” Thatcher used to cut a swathe across British life in the eighties have had a lasting, maybe even permanent effect, so much so that when the supposedly left-wing Labour party came to power in 1997, they themselves had been corrupted by free-market capitalism, to the point that Thatcher saw Tony Blair as part of her legacy. She had effectively destroyed her opposition by forcing it to transform into a slightly more socially progressive clone of her Conservative party. Deregulation of banks continued unabated, corporations continued to harvest more and more of the UK’s wealth into the hands of a select group of privileged individuals, and inequality deepened to a catastrophic degree. We only have ourselves to blame. The media narrative  depicted any views to the left of Blair as “loony” or even dangerous, to the point that ideas such as nationalisation or unionisation have become political minefields. What unions we have only subsist in the public sector, such as among teachers and nurses, as well as  in the rail industry which, whilst privatised, still relies on public funding. This might be the greatest sour joke of all: Thatcher and her ilk have implemented a system in many industries where corporations take over public services only to be bolstered by the supposedly unwanted state, the main effect being that state subsidies line shareholders’ pockets, even as the services the latter are supposed to have taken off the hands of the inefficient state get worse. It’s a gigantic catch-22, and a tunnel from which little -if any- light appears to be shining, because any talk of reclaiming public services for the people is even derided by said people’s supposed party, Labour, let alone the right-wing press or the Tories. The very principles that Labour was founded on have been discarded as part of Blair’s -and therefore Thatcher’s- legacy.

If Blair was bad, what has come along since he and then Gordon Brown were shown the door is even worse, probably even worse than anything Margaret Thatcher could have dreamed up. Riding on flimsy narratives about the budget deficit and a right-wing press campaign against people on benefits, David Cameron’s Tories have taken Thatcherism to a new level, one where those most vulnerable are demonised as somehow responsible for the country’s economic woes whilst the mega-rich, who, if they are big bankers or millionaire tax avoiders, actually are part of the problem, get given tax breaks. Most terrifyingly and frustratingly, the aforementioned narrative fails to be broken, even when exposed as false. Tax evasion and avoidance cost the treasury far more than benefit fraud, yet no matter how often this is repeated, the Tories’ “skivers vs strivers” rhetoric wins out, even among those they’re hitting with bedroom taxes and disability benefit “reforms”. The power of Thatcher’s divide-and-rule technique has never been stronger, turning fellow members of the working class against each other whilst the mega-rich reap the rewards of what little growth the country garners. With the welfare state getting vitriolically undermined, so the way is cleared for even the bastions of public service, such as the NHS and education, to feel the cold blade of privatisation press against their necks. It doesn’t matter that inequality is continuing to separate the richest from their fellow citizens to an unprecedented degree, and clear for all to see. If the Royal Wedding and Elizabeth II’s Jubilee showed anything, is that the presumed right of the elites to lord over Britain’s underclasses has never been never been so profoundly established in our minds. The Queen is set to get a £6 million pay-rise and few will bat an eyelid.

This is why so many of us will feel such rage today, as Thatcher is fawned over by her supine idolators. In her wake, Britain has become a more unequal, less fair and more precarious place to live for too many people. And, call me cynical but I am certain that things will never change. Any alternative progressive vision is systematically and vocally undermined by both the corporate press and the uniformly similar LibLabCon political class, to the point where progressive parties can’t even get more than the odd parliamentary seat. It’s a world where the chattering classes -and, by extension, the people- would rather give airtime and space to the vacuous and noisy xenophobia of UKip rather than look at systems that could actually redress the balance. Thatcher won. The 99% of us who don’t belong to the privileged few will slowly but surely get left behind in the race towards some sort of quality of life.

The line “The Empire Never Ended” has been trotting around my head for some time now, and I’ve even used it in another article. I stumbled across it in Philip K Dick’s Valis, where it’s used in his bizarre gnostic philosophy to describe the sociopolitical system established by a mad god, one that gave us the Roman Empire and supposedly ended with Nixon’s resignation, the latter orchestrated by a “good” and “wise” god, who is some reflection of Jesus Christ. I’m an atheist, so this vision means little to me, for all its interest. And Dick died three years into Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister (and a year into Reagan’s presidency), so he missed the way the militaristic empires of old have been replaced, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, by a convoluted regime guided by the monetary interests of a few wealthy individuals, backed loudly by a media dominated by vested interests and supported by an opportunistic political class that, of course, can still turn to a bit of military muscle when needed to further the free-market cause, as Tony Blair, Thatcher’s child, so ably (and, thankfully, to his detriment) demonstrated. The Empire never ended. It just got clever. And, by being clever, through the vision of Thatcher, Reagan and their followers, it’s more powerful than ever. I don’t see it ending anytime soon, and that’s to our eternal shame. I won’t join in with the crude celebrations over Margaret Thatcher’s, no matter how much I hate the fawning she’s getting, mainly because they’re pointless. She won.

* As a footnote to the above, I am startled and dismayed to see that so many gay people have lamented Thatcher’s passing, to the point that these individuals are overlooking -perhaps caught up in the euphoric wave of Thatcher sanctification- that she oversaw the introduction of the most homophobic law the UK has seen since 1967, by which I of course mean Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and had a hugely detrimental effect on gay kids all over Britain, one that is still being felt today. I can just about get that Gay Times and many of the LGBT community got a bit doe-eyed over The Iron Lady, I assume because of gay icon Meryl Streep, but if we’ve got to the point where, as a community that has had to fight for our rights, we have become so imbued with the attitude of sheer selfishness and greed she promoted that we forget, disregard or neglect our own past, then this world is even more screwed than I thought.

Photo (c) of Don Mcphee. I hope he won’t mind me using it.

Advertisements

From the Vault: Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground (Unpublished)

Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground

These days, with “indy” apparently meaning more that a band sports skinny jeans, Converse and floppy hair, as opposed to any statement on said band’s financial status or musical style, it’s easy to forget that there once was a time when bands would scrape out an existence well out of the spotlight. These days, in truth, “indy” should mean the multitude of acts that don’t make into the pages of the NME and either remain internet phenomena or aren’t signed to anything more than a Type-like micro-label. The Libertines, Blur, The Kooks, Kings of Leon, The Killers? Not independent, no matter what the aforementioned toilet paper rag may claim. But between 1967 and 1970, it appears certain visionary bands were able to make real waves whilst flying very much under the mainstream radar. The internet has allowed a similar train to gain some momentum of late, but compared to those halcyon days, it’s very much hit-and-miss, with most promising oddballs eventually getting swallowed up by the corporate monsters.
Much of this was due to the psychedelic explosion that took America (Britain not so much – blame it on the domination of the likes of Decca, Polydor, the BBC and so on…) by storm. Suddenly, even more so than in the post-Beatles period, American youth had a true musical movement that reflected its values and tastes. Bands that could barely play, or had spent months noodling away on electric guitar in their parents’ garages suddenly became hit acts, and, in comparison to the age of “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You”, this music was louder, harder, wilder and more experimental. The term “acid-rock” became a staple way of describing the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. It didn’t have to be perfect. But it generally had to be loud. In an attempt to cash in on this new phenomenon, record labels big and small began scrabbling around and signing every West Coast band in sight, meaning the ’66-’71 period would see prodigious amounts of records hitting stores and radio stations all at once. Of course, some of it was dross. Some of it would be era-defining, multi-million-dollar-earning statements. And some records, whether on big labels or tiny indies, would go completely unnoticed, and yet end up having a more lasting effect on most of what came later in rock than the Beatles and even The Rolling Stones. Combined!

The Lenny Kaye-assembled compilation Nuggets is a great way to get a glimpse of this effervescent and overlooked explosion, from a more singles-orientated perspective, and it is an essential purchase for all lovers of garage-rock (as this nebulous sub-genre is perhaps best described – just), but there were also a handful of albums released in the immediate post-Surrealistic Pillow period (i.e. 1966 to early ’67) that also merit mention, none more so than the debut album by The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out in March 1967 and was promptly ignored. Much had been made of the band’s association with Pop-Art guru Andy Warhol and the mad, multimedia shows they put on. And let me just say this now, whilst I haven’t included The Velvet Underground & Nico in my titular triptych, it is nonetheless the most important album I will mention in this feature. The birth of art-rock, and a wondrous, terrifying and mind-blowing musical snapshot of the seedy underbelly of New York City, The Velvet Underground & Nico is quite possibly the most influential rock album of all time. That it sold so poorly only underlines its status as the underground album par excellence.

And yet… Maybe it stands too far apart and ahead of all competition, being almost impossible to categorise in its scope and vision. It also feels intrinsically linked to Warhol’s vision, and his desire to respond to what was coming out of California at the time. Not so much a garage-rock (loft-rock, maybe?) album but a dirty, sophisticated, New York version of Monterey Pop psychedelia (its closest cousin maybe the deceptively sunny psych masterpiece by Los Angeles quintet Love, Forever Changes, released the same year). The Velvets would take their vision into even more noncommercial and extreme directions, meaning The Velvet Underground & Nico is more an amuse-bouche of the underground rock genre (after all, it was intended to be a big deal, and only shit promotion from MGM, coupled with Warhol’s increasing disinterest, that caused it to sink), even though it set the scene.

Sitting awkwardly alongside such a magnum opus were the much less ambitious trio of The Seeds, The Deviants and The 13th Floor Elevators.

The Seeds were one of L.A.’s typically ramshackle acts (somehow, the San Francisco bands always seemed more starry-eyed, musically competent and politically-charged, whilst their L.A. cousins seemed more angst-ridden, mean and rough), propelled by lopsided organ and fuzzy guitar riffs. Above all, they had the sneery-voiced Sky Saxon as their leader, someone who could out-weird the likes of Jim Morrison and Arthur Lee. Saxon’s paranoid lyrics and high-pitched snarl reached their apex on A Web of Sound, released nearly six months before The Velvet Underground & Nico in October 1966. It’s a nasty, druggy album that was always doomed to fail, but which in many ways points to where rock would go ten years later with The Sex Pistols and The Clash: short, snappy rock tracks with nasty vocals and warped lyrics (meanwhile the artwork announces The Cramps). Even more immediately prescient was the side-long opus “Up In Her Room”, a gorgeously incompetent garage version of the endless jam epics that would characterise much of where psych-rock would go in the next two years. See? Even in 1966, garage-rock was ahead of the curve.

Even better were Texan band The 13th-Floor Elevators, a barmy, drug-fueled outfit who supposedly coined the term “psychedelic” (at least in rock terms) via the title of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th-Floor Elevators. Where The Seeds were so unkempt, and Sky Saxon so unnerving, that they were never going to trouble the charts, the inability of The 13th-Floor Elevators to crack the top 10 is a bit more of a mystery, were it not for the drugs at least. In Rocky Erikson, they had a singer who could match Mick Jagger for vocal ability and personality, and their songs were just the right blend of belligerent rock and hook-laden psych, with “Fire Engine”, “Roller Coaster” and the absolute masterpiece “You’re Gonna Miss Me” being nearly peerless. Of course, I’ve answered my own question, as Erickson’s legal troubles and the general vibe of menace and excess that surrounded the band would ultimately be their undoing. However, more than The Seeds, and almost as much as The Velvet Underground, The 13th Floor Elevators have become a bona fide cult band, their murky sound and sinister, warped riffs inspiring a generation of rock bands, including those that immediately followed their first flash in the pan.

The Deviants, meanwhile, hailed from England, which had remained remarkably un-edgy in its psychedelic explorations, especially once Hendrix returned to his homeland. English psych bands often had a pastoral vibe that has rarely aged well (except those that went all the way, such as Fairport Convention and Comus), but The Deviants, part of a Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill scene that would produce future members of Hawkwind, The Edgar Broughton Band and The Pink Fairies, were an altogether more abrasive proposition, with darker lyrics and harsh blues licks that made Cream look positively twee. Addled by excessive drug-consumption and general incompetence, The Deviants would never make many waves, but their debut album, Ptoof! was released in 1967, long before the freak-rock of Hawkwind would become a proper money-spinner, putting these guys right up there with the aforementioned bands as proper pioneers of the underground sound. “I’m Coming Home”, in particular, is a demented, blues-inflected slab of nasty stalker rock, whilst “Nothing Man” predicts the darker, sci-fi-influenced direction psychedelia would end up embarking upon, at least in some circles.

These three uneven, often musically basic records would have a lasting influence on punk and grunge, but ultimately seem like glorious (and gloriously weird) failures, hamstrung by drug excess and a lack of proper musical talent. But then again, that is part and parcel of what defines garage-rock, and by extension the sixties/seventies underground in its entirety: the low budgets make getting something truly transcendent that much harder to attain, with attitude being far more important than chops and virtuosity.

Back in America, one San Francisco act was stepping out of the trippy, flower power vibe of its peers and making up for its lack of musical nous ladle-fulls of attitude and volume: Blue Cheer. Forget Cream, Blue Cheer are the perfect power trio, and they practically invented hard rock on their January 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum. Vincebus Eruptum is definitive proof, should you need it, that being able to flick out a Jimmy Page-esque solo for twenty minutes whilst simultaneously referencing Robert Johnson, Son House, Chuck Berry and Bach means fucking jack shit compared to being able to scream like a possessed devil and punish your six-string at full, ear-shattering volume. This Blue Cheer, especially their demented axe-man Leigh Stephens, twigged with bells on, and Vincebus Eruptum contains some of the most extreme and heavy metal you will ever come across, with old classics like “Summertime Blues” and “Parchman Farm” (retitled “Parchment Farm”, for some reason) given overload treatment, whilst “Doctor Please” must be one of the most overtly drug-influenced monstrosities released in the sixties. It’s a decidedly over-the-top and belligerent album, and all the better for it. You can be sure Iggy Pop and Mark Farmer were listening. And in my opinion, Vincebus Eruptum kicks the first 3, even 4, Led Zeppelin albums into the dirt. In fact, only Black Sabbath were doing stuff this heavy in the late sixties. And Blue Cheer got there before them all!

In the UK, the aforementioned Edgar Broughton Band delivered something similarly fucked-up and nasty and loud in the form of their 1969 debut Wasa Wasa, that took the Sabbathian doom-folk-blues vibe and added a dollop of acid-drenched fuzz and Broughton’s Howlin’ Wolf vocals for good measure. Wasa Wasa possibly has too many delusions of grandeur and hippy notions to really equal the underground vibe of Vincebus Eruptum, but it is just wicked and fucked-up enough to warrant mention here, and like the concurrent records by Hawkwind and Man, show the better side of the UK scene in the post-Beatles, pre-Bowie void years. It’s certainly more interesting than what Led Zeppelin (I’m not picking on them, I swear!) and Pink Floyd were doing at the time!

Volume and darkness seemed to be the going trend in the rock underground by this point. The idealism of the Airplane and the Dead, and the commercial triteness of Pink Floyd and the Beatles had become stifling, especially in the wake of Manson and Altamont, and those bands on the periphery of the “scene” were duly responding with bile and fury. Even some of the mainstream was going that way, with the Sabbath acting as a grim shadow to Led Zep and Deep Purple’s more fey strands of metal, whilst sinister and sophisticated King Crimson emerged as the most exciting band of the nascent progressive rock scene. And let’s not forget the dark turn the Rolling Stones’ music took in the wake of Brian Jones’ untimely passing. Hippiedom was in its death throes, commercialism was rearing its ugly head, but the underground was somehow making itself heard, and its vibe was permeating everything.

The MC5, a Detroit-based quintet of ex-hippies, pretty much distilled these divergent strands of rock music in 1968 on their live debut Kick Out The Jams. In many ways, it represents the apex of the hippy movement, in that, unlike the mostly passive Woodstock-ites, The MC5 were properly militant, directed with a fierce hand by John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther movement, and with songs expounding communist and revolutionary views and promoting a generally all-or-nothing ideal of social change. In these cynical times, it all seems a bit silly, but luckily the 5 backed such political ramblings with some fucking amazing hardcore rock’n’roll, with the twin guitar attack of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer ripping into your ear drums, equally influenced by the punishing crunch of Blue Cheer and, more subtly, the blazing free jazz of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Meanwhile, Rob Tyner was a vocalist extraordinaire, exhorting the crowd at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom with the energy and charisma of a religious preacher. There are times when listening to Kick Out The Jams that you actually feel rock’n’roll could change the world. Of course, the MC5 would burn out spectacularly, and the dream of a hippy revolution out of Detroit died, but again, the scream of those guitars did not go unheard.

One thing about Kick Out the Jams (and indeed the heavy blues of Blue Cheer and The Edgar Broughton Band or the basic formula of The Seeds), is that the structures and styles of the music are at heart nothing more than a modernisation, at maximum volume, of those of the r’n’r pioneers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Once again, this predicted the trend of a few years later, when the UK’s proto-punks and pub rockers like Dr Feelgood updated old-school r’n’b to the general acclaim of the press and public. But, of course, this trend for such overt nostalgia (as that of Dr Feelgood) was predicted in an even more overt way by yet another celebrated garage-rock outfit, San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies. Their masterpiece was 1971’s Teenage Head, a veritable proto-punk classic, but they set down a marker even earlier with 1970’s Flamingo. A former jug band, the Groovies were rocked by seeing the MC5, as well as their psyched-out West Coast brethren, and responded by upping their amp volume exponentially. But at their core, they were ecstatic fans of Lewis, Cochran, Muddy Waters and Little Richard, and their main appeal is that they could rock out in true turn-of-the-decade fashion, with menacing Manson vocals and lyrics, but also had the jerky energy and camp of early rock’n’roll. Sadly, it never caught on, and whilst the Groovies would manage to go one step further with their follow-up, they would remain an influential footnote in the history of garage rock, and little more. Although, for the record, they left behind one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded: “Whiskey Woman”, which manages to out-Stones the Stones.

So what of my triptych? For whilst all of the above are excellent, ground-breaking albums, three masterpieces for me sum up what it means to be a proper, unfettered underground (or independent, or garage – you choose) band.

Of course, I could not let The Velvet Underground slip by with such a complimentary but only cursory mention of their first, superlative, album. For, as I have said in the past, The VU are the greatest, most important rock band that ever walked this timid earth, the only band to truly capture, in all its depraved glory, what it means to fucking rock, not just with a guitar but as a way of life. If their debut established that a rock band could also be smart and artistic, then once they had dispensed with the beautiful but intrusive presence of Nico (who would go on to create wonderful albums on her own, I must say, before Nico fans get on my back; I just think the best Velvets moments mostly happened after the German chanteuse had left), they truly flew, albeit in the face of what it meant to be a popular pop-rock band.

The result was White Light/White Heat, which erupted into the world in January 1968, the same month as Vincebus Eruptum. Talk about a double conflagration! Both The Velvets and Blue Cheer played at deafening volume, but where Leigh Stephens and co went for the bludgeoning effect, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker took the distortion, fuzz and clatter of their hard rock, and married it to probing, intellectual, humorous and sardonic lyrics, mostly written by Reed at his best. Meanwhile, the Tucker/Morrison rhythm section pound out relentlessly steady beats whilst sudden, piercing guitar lines, or shimmers of electrified viola arc out of the murk like rockets, joining the dots between Reed’s doo-wop/pop-rock roots and the avant-garde minimalism of Cale. Every track on the album is a wonder, from the awkward grooves of the title track and “Here She Comes Now”, to the manic, off the wall noise mess of “I Heard Her Call My Name”. Meanwhile, “The Gift” is an hilarious spoken word horror story delivered in hysterically deadpan fashion by Cale. But if any track defines and encapsulates the spirit of fucked-up, heroin-drenched New York punk-rock, it’s “Sister Ray”, possibly the best rock song ever recorded. As Reed mangles his guitar in a way that could make your hair go grey, for 17 blissful minutes, Cale punches out a daft series of moronic riffs on organ whilst Tucker pounds away on a single drum like she’s trying to tear apart the San Andreas fault and bury Californian rock for good. No band was doing rock like The Velvet Underground in 1968, and it’s fair to say quite a few people were listening, even if MGM, and the public at large, were not.

Luckily, Mo Tucker’s drums, as powerful as they were (and there have been few better drummers in the history of rock music), didn’t sink California into the sea, for if they had, we would have been deprived of the majestic garage-country of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Such has been the Canadian’s celebrity (Artist of the Decade in the seventies, according to Village Voice), and the unparalleled success of his mellow 1972 country-folk album Harvest, that it’s easy to forget that, after the demise of his sixties band Buffalo Springfield, Young was a bit of an unknown quantity, much in the shadow of his Springfield acolyte Stephen Stills and with only a failed debut solo album to his name.
His meeting with L.A. garage rock quintet The Rockets was a moment of rock serendipity that has rarely been equaled. The rhythm section of The Rockets was made up of Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, and Ralph Molina on drums, and they combined unbelievable funkiness with unbelievable levels of incompetence, in a way that only Neil Young could love, and led to one of the greatest albums of the Canadian’s career: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). The magic of Crazy Horse was that they allowed Young, a disturbed, fragile and angry folk-rocker, a platform in which to make his sound loud, without putting the kind of pressure on him that the Springfield did. Talbot and Molina were minimalist, but built rock-solid bases for two of Young’s most elegiac pieces: “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. On these lengthy masterpieces, the drums and bass become a blank canvas for his guitar and voice. And what a guitar! What a voice! At one time, Young’s voice was considered so dismal that he wasn’t allowed to sing on his own tracks for the Springfield. Yet his sensitive, fragile warble elevates “Down By The River” or “Running Dry” to elegiac heights, the vulnerability adding to the doom-like vibe of the tracks, as if they were sung by a kid stuck in a closet whilst untold demons roam the corridors outside. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought soul into garage rock, adding an emotional depth that transcends the raw power and sturm und drang that characterises most of the above-mentioned music. Neil Young, especially with Crazy Horse, will break your heart. As for the guitar, well I have heard enough guitar solos to elevate a million souls to heaven, but no-one can beat Neil Young in his pomp, and he has rarely bettered “Cowgirl in the Sand”, as delivered to an unsuspecting world in 1969 on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Fuck Clapton, Page and Gilmour – no-one beats Neil Young when Crazy Horse let him fly.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought the hippy Topanga Canyon vibe into somewhere darker, more abstract, jazzier and grungier. Indeed, the look Young sports on the album cover would become the style of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and other grunge icons nearly 30 years later. Less than a year after this album, Young would embark on a lucrative, but frustrating, path, as he joined the ego-fest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, exposing his wondrously underground sounds to a wide -and appreciative- audience, and perhaps already showing how the “indy” rock world could be easily and tackily absorbed into the mainstream. Luckily, Young would be too slippery to obey market concerns, as his controversial mid-seventies output would emphatically prove.

Neil Young, when associated with Crazy Horse, took hippiedom out of flower power into the rusted garage, and made the Woodstock vibe loud. The Stooges took loud music out of hippiedom. They were less intellectual than The Velvet Underground, but songs like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, from their debut, self-titled, album, demonstrated a similar interest in depraved and violent sex. But any subtlety, as encapsulated by Lou Reed’s lyrics or John Cale’s avant-garde leanings, was lost with The Stooges as a miasma of guitar noise and punishing rhythm engulfed any of singer Iggy Pop’s potential pretensions in a deluge of exquisite noise. The Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott, on guitar and drums respectively, were long-hired rednecks, with a vicious undercurrent that helped make The Stooges so violent and punishing that, no matter how their second album, Fun House (1970) strayed from the mainstream, it couldn’t help but get noticed. It’s that good.
Much of The Stooges appeal will always be down to front-man James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who, for all his bonkers stage antics (self-harming, nudity, swearing at the audience…) was very much the thinking man of the band, the lyricist, jazz-lover and friend of Bowie and Reed. But never underestimate Scott Asheton’s ability to hold a beat like a heavy metal metronome, whilst Ron’s scything, ever-soloing guitar (he had that remarkable talent of being both lead guitarist and rhythm) is like a coiled snake, scooting around Pop’s voice as he moans, roars, sneers and yelps. The Stooges defined a rock dynamic that moved away from the twin-guitar-with-vocals approach of the sixties bands, and back to pioneers like James Brown and Little Richard, where the voice and guitar don’t so much duet as duel. On “Dirt”, the pinnacle of Fun House, The Stooges lay aside their high-octane, full-throttle attack in favour of a dirty blues groove, whilst Ron Asheton’s guitar, with its peppering, never-ending solo, comes across like John Coltrane‘s sax. Yes, it’s that gorgeous. Iggy’s lyrics of self-harming and self-loathing are just the icing on the cake. “Dirt” proves that The Stooges could be subtle and smart, whilst the rest of Fun House saw them flexing muscles and battering the senses in all their garage-punk-metal glory. The Stooges were well ahead of their time, a true punk outfit, but with the personality of a post-punk band. They managed to predict both The Sex Pistols and PiL. Need I say more?

If anything, my (un)holy triptych perfectly demonstrate just how intangible “garage”, “indy” or “underground” rock can be. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Iggy Pop are all now mega stars, who have eased, perhaps reluctantly, into elder statesman territory. Such is life. The Stooges, Crazy Horse and The Velvets are now often the first bands on the lips of the latest band to be signed to Universal or Sony. The underground is now so vast as to be incomprehensible, whilst our old idols only make sense in reverse. Again, such is life. Or at least music. And with the endless horizons come new artifacts from decades long past: true underground and lost gems, such as Alexander Spence‘s Oar or Tangerine Dream‘s incredible debut, Electronic Meditation. Both came out in the period I’ve been describing in this feature, and in so many ways they go beyond even the heady heights of my triptych. But the trio I have ultimately chosen bridge the gap between noncommercial music and the mainstream, tearing angrily at the fabric of popular trends to take things, whether they knew it or not, to new levels. It would happen again with PiL, Joy Division, The Cure and Television, amongst others. The underground won’t leave the mainstream alone, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if it makes no sense.

My ’66-’70 Garage Playlist:

1. The Seeds: “No Escape” (from The Seeds)
2. The Seeds: “Up In Her Room” (from A Web of Sound)
3. 13th Floor Elevators: “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
4. 13th Floor Elevators: “Roller Coaster” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
5. The Electric Prunes: “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (from Nuggets)
6. The Velvet Underground: “Venus In Furs” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
7. The Velvet Underground: “Heroin” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
8. The Deviants: “I’m Coming Home” (from Ptoof!)
9. Blue Cheer: “Doctor Please” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
10. Blue Cheer: “Parchment Farm” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
11. The Edgar Broughton Band: “Death of an Electric Citizen” (from Wasa Wasa)
12. MC5: “Kick Out The Jams” (from Kick Out The Jams)
13. MC5: “I Want You Right Now” (from Kick Out The Jams)
14. Flamin’ Groovies: “Heading For The Texas Border” (from Flamingo)
15. The Velvet Underground: “The Gift” (from White Light/White Heat)
16. The Velvet Underground: “I Heard Her Call My Name” (from White Light/White Heat)
17. The Velvet Underground: “Sister Ray” (from White Light/White Heat)
18. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cinnamon Girl” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
19. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By The River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
20. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cowgirl In the Sand” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
21. The Stooges: “Dirt” (from Fun House)
22. The Stooges: “1970” (from Fun House)
23. The Stooges: “Fun House” (from Fun House)
24. Tangerine Dream: “Journey Through A Burning Brain” (from Electronic Meditation)
25. Alexander Spence: “Grey/Afro” (from Oar)

Unpublished: Kraftwerk – The Mix, Live at Tate Modern, February 13th 2013

This is a review I wrote for the Quietus on the recent Kraftwerk perforance of their album The Mix at Tate Modern.

The question of whether Kraftwerk needed to do a remix album way back in 1991 will not be answered by tonight’s show at Tate Modern, the penultimate concert of the series and perhaps the most “Greatest-Hits-y” of the lot, which, from what I hear when discussing the event with friends and fellow concert-goers, is saying something.

As I wander into this illustrious gallery’s cavernous turbine hall, swearing under my breath over the price of a can of lager, I’m struck by a realisation that won’t leave me for the rest of the evening: I know what I’m going to get tonight. Perhaps more than any other band in pop music, Kraftwerk have become masters of note-perfectly recreating their studio creations in a live format. I also know that there will be 3D visuals and, beyond The Mix, a smattering of fan favourites from the band’s back catalogue (the latter information courtesy of all the hubbub this retrospective has, somewhat bizarrely, caused. Any excitement I initially felt was quickly dampened by the ticket prices and effectively annihilated as I cried when handing over five pounds per drink consumed. Ok, maybe that’s bugged me inordinately…). So, if surprises are definitely off the menu, beyond the booze (let it go, Burnett!), what is there really to look forward to? I mean, this is The Mix we’re talking about. About as far from a career high-water-mark as Kraftwerk got.

Well, these are still great tunes, aren’t they? And, at the risk of being called a heretic, I think The Mix versions of “The Robots” and “Radioactivity” improved on the originals quite substantially, making them pacier and, somehow, more fun. Aided by the decent acoustics within the turbine hall, both pack a decent punch and quickly get the punters dancing, which is an impressive feat when wearing flimsy 3D glasses. Other tracks such as “Autobahn” and “Computer Love”, however, reinforce the feeling that many had when The Mix was initially released: what’s the point? They’re not bad versions, but they don’t deviate enough from the originals to really excite. 20 years on, and with remixing having blossomed into an art-form itself, these tracks sound more dated than their originals, coming on like Pet Shop Boys B-Sides from 1988. Having said that, only at a Kraftwerk concert will you ever witness an audience erupting into ecstatic cheers upon hearing a bit of morse code. Credit where it’s due!

Personally, I also like the fact that the quartet never really does anything onstage. They don’t smile or acknowledge the crowd, and it’s impossible to determine who is doing what (how cool would it be if it was all lip-synched?), beyond Ralf Hütter’s singing. There is something remarkably post-modern in this deliberately obtuse approach. However, by focusing backwards, musically, at merely celebrating and rehashing their past, Kraftwerk end up undermining their own aesthetic. The 3D videos are simplistic and cartoon-ish, and a slight staleness permeates even the best moments. Kraftwerk were once a sublimely forward-looking band (I still have to pinch myself at the notion that Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine all came out between ‘75 and ‘78), but with this concert, and maybe even the entire series, such avant-gardism has become a thing of the past. As enjoyable as many of these songs are, it seems fitting that I’m witnessing them in a museum.

Photo copyright Katja Ogrin, first appearing in The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/11331-kraftwerk-live-review-tate-modern-autobahn

Unpublished live review: Raime, Bass Clef and Leyland James Kirby at Bishopsgate Institute, 27/01/2012

This is a concert review intended for publication on The Quietus, but which went unused due to a lack of photos.

This concert could hardly have got off to a worse start, with news that dubstep act King Midas Sound had pulled out hours before they were supposed to be on, citing technical and sound issues. A real shame, and KMS’ Kevin Martin expressed understandable dismay and anger at not being able to perform. Huge credit therefore has to go to Exotic Pylon’s Johnny Mugwump, the show’s organiser, for pulling a rabbit out of the hat and getting Bass Clef to take their place at such short notice.

The Bishopsgate Institute may deserve a rap on the knuckles for not giving in to King Midas Sound’s sonic requirements, but their main hall was still a lovely venue, with excellent sound, given the high ceiling, and it was an aural space that fitted well with Raime’s cavernous take on dubstep. I have my reservations as to how the duo will ever manage to expand on their gloomy, heavy sound -which can get slightly repetitive (2012 note: Their 2012 debut full album has drop-kicked these doubts into the dust, as it’s excellent and a wonderful development)- but when they get into full “swing”, they can be very powerful, with kick drums like hammers shuddering across the hall over floor-shaking bass grooves laced with icy synth patterns and disconnected voice snippets. They made good use of the projector, with suitably apocalyptic videos playing out behind them, but you couldn’t help thinking they were a tantalising, appropriately dark, but rather intangible amuse-bouche for what was to follow.

If Johnny Mugwump deserves credit for how he handled the KMS fall-out, so does Bass Clef (apparently fresh off a building site) for answering the call so emphatically. His fast-paced, energetic take on techno/house may have sat awkwardly with the evening’s “haunted” theme, being more designed for a gleeful rave-up than morose head-shaking, but his chattering drum beats and infectious melodies had the audience dancing fervently, whilst he occasionally dropped in random elements like a high-pitched whistle to keep us on our toes. His final piece saw him pick up a trombone and run it through several effects over shifting rhythms, for a nice dollop of the unexpected and genre-bending, the horn coming on a bit like the minimalism of Dickie Landry’s sax on Fifteen Saxophones, only with frenetic beats chuntering along underneath. Rather than being out-of-place, Bass Clef felt engaging (and above all fun), and his high-octane approach gave the evening a much-needed shot in the arm following the deflation of the King Midas Sound cancellation. I have to admit I’d never heard of Bass Clef before, but his take on techno was one of the most exciting I’ve heard in a while, sitting somewhere between The Field and Ital.

But with King Midas Sound out of the picture, there was always only going to be one piece de resistance, and that was Leyland James Kirby, making his first London appearance in several years. And, literally, what an appearance the man has. With his wild curly mane, he looks like a cross between Ian Hunter and French pop star Michel Polnareff, and he has similar charisma, joking with the audience in his Stockport drawl and opening proceedings with an hilarious lip-synced rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”, rolling around on the floor like a parody of a demented, boozed-up rock star. If nostalgia has often been a byword for Kirby’s work, he turned the tables here in quite some style, confounding any expectations I had that this would be a restrained, overly pensive performance.

Once he had settled behind his laptop, the focus of the set switched to the screen as a vaguely narrative-driven film unfolded, one that Kirby seemed to turn to and interact with as he slouched and twisted in his seat. If Kirby’s work as The Caretaker haunts the ballrooms at the back of the minds of aged Alzheimer’s sufferers, his music under his own name feels touched by more immediate ghosts, ones that slipped and slid out of focus both onscreen and in what soon emerged musically as something very different to the material on his most recent album, Eager to Tear Apart the Stars. Dense, tortured drones and ragged percussion jostled with distorted organ noise and thudding bass, whilst scenes of Kirby himself stumbling down a flight of stairs flitted in and out of images of floating women and dark, brooding streets.

In many ways, I was reminded of the live sound of American electro-noise stalwart Keith Fullerton Whitman: Kirby whipped up a veritable electric storm that raged and seethed with the phantoms of his earlier projects V/vm and The Strangers jostling for aural space. The set felt angry and industrial, not so much focusing on memories but rather on the crumbling of the now: sodden cityscapes, uneasy machinery and highways fading into exploding galaxies. Later on, images of Thatcher, the Cold War and protesting feminists and gay rights activists would play out onscreen, dragging in the past to enmesh it with the present, heightening the sense that we were witnessing a despondent, even angry, vision of modern times in full audiovisual flight. Leyland Kirby latched onto the Throbbing Gristle side of psychedelia, and the effects bordered on the unsettling, even as his acute sense of melody crept into the sprawling mix.

And then, just as unexpectedly, the atmosphere switched. Mournful piano chords redolent of the music on Eager to Tear Apart the Stars rolled out of the speakers, underscored by heavy bass rumbles. The film switched from its apocalyptic collage to more intimate scenes of a younger Kirby enjoying himself in black-and-white Berlin. Innocence lost seemed to be the theme, and after such a raw first two-thirds, it was an emotionally charged way to end the set. At the death, a slide dedicated the final performance to us, the audience, with a message of love. Then Kirby was on his feet again, mouthing the words to Barry Manilow’s saccharine ballad “I Write the Songs”. It was both amusing and touching, and I was struck by the man’s aura of charisma and strength as he raised his arms and exhorted us to sing along like a hippy folk icon.

Leyland James Kirby’s vision is complex, its expression almost a stream of consciousness. But ultimately, what stands out is its intensity. Whether playing with basic, atmospheric piano chords on record, or unloading a blitzkrieg of noise live; whether playing with pop songs with evident joy, or playing out dreams and political points in film, he gives himself entirely. That was what was witnessed at the Bishopsgate Institute: an artist opening up completely. The result was thrilling, exhausting and unforgettable.

From the Vault: 2011 in Review

My appraisal of the 30 best albums of 2011, from http://www.rateyourmusic.com.

1
Through Glass Panes

Ellen Fullman

Through Glass Panes (2011)
2
Afro Noise I

Cut Hands

Afro Noise I (2011)
3
Eager to Tear Apart the Stars

Leyland Kirby

Eager to Tear Apart the Stars (2011)
4
Man With Potential

Pete Swanson

Man With Potential (2011)
5
Tryptych

Demdike Stare

Tryptych (2011) [Compilation]
6
Confessions of a Sex Maniac

Werewolf Jerusalem

Confessions of a Sex Maniac (2011) [Compilation]
7
Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth (2011)
8
Hold Everything Dear

Cindytalk

Hold Everything Dear (2011)
9
Severant

Kuedo

Severant (2011)
10
Fucked on a Pile of Corpses

Skullflower

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses (2011)
11
Amplifying Host

Richard Youngs

Amplifying Host (2011)
12
Application à aphistemi

Vomir

Application à aphistemi (2011)
13
Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis

Eleh

Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis (2011) [Compilation]
14
Consecration of the Whipstain

Indignant Senility

Consecration of the Whipstain (2011)
15
univrs

Alva Noto

univrs (2011)
16
How the Thing Sings

Bill Orcutt

How the Thing Sings (2011)
17
Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

Phurpa

Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (2011)
18
Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton (2011)
19
Red Horse

Red Horse

Red Horse (2011)
20
Ersatz GB

The Fall

Ersatz GB (2011)
21
Ghost People

Martyn

Ghost People (2011)
22
Benacah Drann Deachd

Dalglish

Benacah Drann Deachd (2011)
23
Re: ECM

Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer

Re: ECM (2011)
24
Life Is an Illusion

Annapurna Illusion

Life Is an Illusion (2011)
25
Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker

Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)
26
Drawn and Quartered

Deadbeat

Drawn and Quartered (2011)
27
Our Blood

Richard Buckner

Our Blood (2011)
28
Elemental Disgrace

Hive Mind

Elemental Disgrace (2011)
29
Looping State of Mind

The Field

Looping State of Mind (2011)
30
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

The Caretaker

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)

From the Vault: Gateway to Blasphemous Light: SKULLFLOWER!!

This article originally appeared on my blog, and is my fanboy-esque take on most of the great noise/rock band Skullflower’s studio and live albums, from theit Black Flag debut to 2011’s Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament. I hope I do them justice.

Approaching the daunting monolith that is Skullflower‘s discography would take the patience of a saint and pockets deeper than Donald Trump’s (if you want to meet such a hardy soul, check out this superlative list by my online buddy, “Nightwrath”: http://rateyourmusic.com/list/nightwrath/the_power_of_skullflower/). So, typical of my general laziness, I’m not going to try to give a proper overview/blow-by-blow analysis/history lesson, just give my take on those albums I have (generally the most easily purchasable ones) and how I have come to regard Skullflower as nothing less than one of the best bands ever to grace the world.


The history of Skullflower is intrinsically linked to the UK underground of the early eighties, which exploded to life in the wake of punk, lurching into more unusual, dark and experimental directions as it did so. The advent of cheaper recording formats, notably cassette tapes, simple electronic instruments and easy-to-use recording methods meant that music was no longer the exclusive domain of classical composers or pop/rock/jazz bands with studio access and lots of ability. Indeed, punk, for all its numerous flaws, had shown that anyone with a good idea and lots of attitude could make a record and even, wonder of wonders, get it released.

Less physical barriers were also coming down. Even as the country as a whole was embracing rabid conservatism, in the form of Margaret Thatcher’s government,  the musical underground was getting more radical. Throbbing Gristle, who remain to this day the granddaddies of radical British music, and the scene’s eternal leading lights, had led the way, exploring transgressive and provocative themes, and giving birth to a new genre of music they baptised “Industrial”. Out of their explorations of extreme sound and lyrical matter, the UK underground would bloom.



I will admit to not being an expert, but, it seems to me that, until these halcyon years from 1977 to 1985, Britain had never had a truly “out-there” act that could serve as a calling card to the rest of the underground. The US, of course, had had The Velvet Underground, whilst Japan had seen Les Rallizes Denudes headline massive festivals, and Germany had given us the freak-out post-everything of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream‘s first album. Which is not to say the UK had not had great underground acts (Pink Fairies, anyone?), but the extremism and provocation of those foreign bands had yet to really be mirrored in such conceptual glory in this country. Throbbing Gristle changed all that, and Whitehouse, Ramleh and, of course, Skullflower, took things to another level altogether. In typical British fashion, of course, none of them -past the initial shock value of TG and Whitehouse- caused quite the stir that The VU or The Stooges did among mainstream audiences, even those inclined towards “fringe” sounds. In this country, we venerate at the altars of alien gods, but if the same souls emerge on our shores, we just can’t believe it to be real… Or so it seems from the vantage point of youth (such as it is). Otherwise, I fail to understand how The Velvet Underground or The Stooges managed to burrow their way into cultdom among British rock fans, but Skullflower remain mostly unknown. I’m lucky in many ways to have come along decades after much of the music I love hit its heights, but am aware that often my perceptions can be skewed or unrealistic. I’m doing my best to represent things as they were, I promise!


Of course, any talk of Skullflower means nothing if you don’t mention the man behind such an illustrious musical entity. His name is Matt Bower, and his shadow soars over the UK underground like some mystical but outlandish eagle, even if his influence has rarely been mirrored in record sales. More than William Bennett or even his buddy Gary Mundy, and perhaps only equaled by Steve Stapleton and David Tibet, Matt Bower is the voice, guitar and effects box of the UK underground. And Skullflower remains, even after such magnificent side projects as Total, Sunroof!, Hototogisu and Voltigeurs, the supreme expression of Bower’s vision.


The birth of Skullflower was slow and progressive, growing out of several Uni/high school bands involving Bower, Alex Binnie, Stewart Dennison, Stefan Jaworzyn and others. At one time, Bower was a key member of Gary Mundy’s superb power electronics/drone metal outfit Ramleh, and the first Bower albums, first as Total then as Skullflower, would appear on Mundy’s seminal Broken Flag label.

Which is as good a place as any to start, given that, having already made a power electronics splash solo as Total, on Broken Flag, Bower would unleash Skullflower on the world via that very label. I remain convinced that the UK underground, and metal/noise music in general, would never be the same again from the moment BFV9 hit the shelves.

Birthdeath (Broken Flag, 1988)

As Skullflower’s first proper release, Birthdeath is essential listening to any fan of the band, or any of Bower’s subsequent adventures. It’s most interesting to listen to in the context of what Broken Flag was releasing at the time. Broken Flag had become renowned as a post-Industrial, power electronics label, with albums by Maurizio Bianchi and Grey Wolves among its numerous tape releases. Extreme stuff indeed. And whilst Birthdeath, with its creepy title and oppressive atmosphere, certainly fit the mold, it was also very different, for a start because it featured “real” instruments, with guitars, bass and drums taking precedence over fucked-up synths or electronics.


And yet, of all Skullflower releases, Birthdeath perhaps feels most consistent with the age in which it was made. The loping bass lines are 100% post-punk, evoking such post-punk luminaries as Joy Division or PiL. Not a bad thing of course, and Bower’s vocals are notably brilliant, a Rotten-esque snarl that is nonetheless wrenched back into the mix, subsumed by rampant guitar noise and insistent percussion, therefore taking the music beyond post-punk and into a neo-metal environment that would later give us My Bloody Valentine and Ride. With a darkness and menace that was 100% TG/Whitehouse/This Heat. Birthdeath may be short (it’s an EP after all) and very “rock”, it remains one of the first indications of where industrial music, as a “rock” derivative, and metal could go. Skullflower would between 1988 and 1995 show just how magnificent such a combination would be.

Form Destroyer (Broken Flag, 1989)

If Birthdeath gave a hint, and tentatively brought metal (I’m talking Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult metal of the darkest kind, here) back into the orbit of the underground, away from the nonsense zone the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had taken it to, Form Destroyer, and the slew of albums that followed it, would elevate the Skullflower sound into the realms of genius. Dark, metal-meets-industrial-post-punk genius.


Form Destroyer dispenses with a lot of the familiarity that Birthdeath had built up. Fuck the Peter Hook-ish bass and punkish sneer vocals. This is Bower bowing down at the altar of guitar noise, taking the power electronics template of Ramleh and Whitehouse and filtering it through riff-upon-riff of messed up power chords, as if Tony Iommi had shed his hippy leanings and then been given full reign of the Sabbath’s musical direction. Opening track “Elephant’s Graveyard” is everything that makes Skullflower so special, a non-stop guitar solo backed by ridiculously heavy post-Bill Ward drums and one-note bass whilst Bower limply utters unintelligible lyrics as if he’s drowning in guitar mulch. The tremolo and fuzz are obscene, and the track hoists itself out of any noise/industrial context into dark, cavernous realms of new metal. The kind of metal that would have Julian Cope salivating. Where power electronics and industrial seemed to reflect the clunking, metallic, buzzing present/future, here was music that felt older than time itself, as if long-lost gods and angels were rising from centuries of slumber to reclaim the world. This ur-plod echoed that of Sabbath, but stripped away any modern context, becoming the sound of dusty pyramids, creepy barrows and pagan monoliths. And of course, this became the template for the next 25 years (and counting) of metal music, the dots between Form Destroyer and bands like SUNN O))) or Nadja being all too easy to connect.

Xaman (Shock Records, 1990)

Shock Records were owned by Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn who was, until he left the band in the early nineties following one too many fall-outs with Bower, the other main creative figure of the band. Having said that, mega fans such as myself will always treasure the contributions of drummer Stewart Dennison at least as much as those of Jaworzyn. There’s just something so perfect about Dennison’s monolithic plod, and it would drive and animate the Skullflower sound in inimitable ways at least until the band’s first dissolution in 1996.


Xaman is, in my opinion, the first perfect Skullflower statement. It’s more abstract than Form Destroyer, despite also being more “metal”. Its predecessor maintained a tiny, tiny, bit of the post-punk soul of Birthdeath, which somehow made it less abstract than this, or future albums. By releasing themselves into metal and noise, equal parts Sabbathian plod and Rallizes-esque guitar saturation, Skullflower grew into a monstrous beast, whose tracks were built around ridiculous sub-Crazy Horse rhythmic plods whilst Jaworzyn and Bower leaped into the stratosphere via their guitars, endlessly soloing as each piece, from opening pounder “Slaves” to the side-long, 26-minute-long beast “Wave” soared and rumbled like a mythological mountain detaching itself from the earth and taking off towards the heavens (I have no idea what that metaphor means, but it seems to fit).

As someone who listens to a lot of metal music, I have tried to find a comparable album to Xaman, another such premonitory opus that indicates where the genre was going to go, and indeed spend the next 20 years. I can’t. Sure, Swans took the Sabbath’s slowed-down sound and married it to industrial clanging, but Xaman is something else altogether – its background in industrial is only hinted at through walls of noise, but mostly this is pure doom, primeval and heavier than that lead zeppelin Keith Moon mentioned all those decades ago. Xaman features guitar played as Jimmy Page should have played it back in ’68, a non-stop riff-o-mania mixed with basic solos, so insistent that its meaning becomes unfathomable. Guitar as noise. Guitar as drone. Guitar as trance. Xaman is truly overwhelming, and for me feels like the culmination of what brutish heavy metal, as dreamed up by Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, was always meant to be. I wish someone would hurry up and re-release this motherfucker!

IIIrd Gatekeeper (HeadDirt, 1992)

Until Bower resuscitated Skullflower in the mid-2000s, IIIrd Gatekeeper was perhaps the most famous of the band’s albums, and incidentally one of the absolute best.


Essentially, IIIrd Gatekeeper is modern metal in excelsis. Do you like Nadja? The Angelic Process? Hey Colossus? Boris? Here’s the blueprint. With the -possible- exceptions of The Melvins and Earth, I don’t think any band really set down a marker on the genre in quite the way Skullflower did on IIIrd Gatekeeper. Of course, I’ve been talking about metal since Birthdeath, so what changed? Sitting here in my living room, my head filled with sound, the first thing that occurs to me is the bass. It’s no longer subsumed into the mix – it’s front and centre, big, fat, distorted and powerful. Almost a second lead guitar. Imagine Jefferson Airplane‘s legendary bassist Jack Casady doing metal, and you might just get the sound I’m evoking. If you’re an Airplane fan. If not, then fuck me, just go out and buy IIIrd Gatekeeper!

Mirroring this added heaviness, the drums are equally in-your-face, slovenly punches to the skins that inch the melodies along. The whole production is clearer and more typically heavy-metal-ish, with Bower’s guitar (he was now sole axeman following the departure of Jaworzyn) creating scything walls of relentless distortion, feedback and fuzz. Again, there are no riffs in the traditional Sabbath/Zeppelin style, just endless, near-formless soloing, taking the format laid down by those bands, and hurtling into something closer to free improv or drone. But Skullflower never relinquishes the violence and heaviness that makes metal such a haven for headbangers. Tracks like “Larks Tongues” (neat King Crimson reference!) and “Saturnalia” are like Sabbath on LSD, twisted, beyond-heavy crunchers that pummel the senses under waves of guitar noise and thunderous drumming. The vocals, meanwhile, are almost a prototype of the kind of harsh, muted growling that would soon become a staple of Black Metal.

Perhaps the overall sound and vibe of IIIrd Gatekeeper is a reflection of the man who released it. HeadDirt was the imprint of Justin K Broadrick, long a devotee of Skullflower, now of Jesu and Greymachine, who at the time was riding high as an industrial metal pioneer via his Godflesh outfit. Like Skullflower, Godflesh was a seminal band, melding harsh urban noises with a vintage metal pummel and bleak lyrical output. It was not any more ferocious than what Bower and co were doing in their Broken Flag days, but perhaps slightly more tailored towards the mainstream. Ever so slightly. In comparison, Skullflower would always be an outsider band, but at least Broadrick was keen to give some time int he limelight. To this day, IIIrd Gatekeeper remains the most common first point of entry for people discovering Skullflower.

Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993)

Skullflower goes psychedelic!!! Of course, records like Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper were already darkly psychedelic, in a typically Cope-esque manner. But Last Shot at Heaven moves things up a notch in the trippy bliss levels, whilst maintaining an edge of violence and menace, as demonstrated by the cover art depicting a young woman craning her head back, eyes seemingly shut in ecstasy, but which is actuallty a picture of one of the first Muslim victims of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing taken just as she was being shot.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of being a Skullflower fan is picking up on the subtle -or sometimes radical- sonic shifts they make as they advance from one album to another, and picking up on the understated metaphors in both their music and artwork.


The basic template inherited from IIIrd Gatekeeper, of harsh guitar soloing, pumping bass and earthquake-inducing drums, is retained on LSAH, but where its predecessor focused on the drums and the bass and the mood, this motherfucker is a massive guitar celebration, as Bower rips outlandish warped noise from his beleaguered axe, creating the kind of sonic tornado that, along with the blistering poly-rhythmic pounding of the drums as displayed here on “Rotten Sun li”, would later become a key component of bands like Acid Mother’s Temple, Mainliner or even Oneida. The guitar no longer incarnates a phallic extension of the macho Jimmy Page-esque frontman, nor is it a means to subvert conventions in the manner of Stoogian riffage. Instead, it’s a supremely cosmic weapon of pure transcendence, a beautifully awe-inspiring sound to transport the listener to new-found inner worlds. In that respect, Last Shot at Heaven feels most noticeably “retro” among early Skullflower albums, channeling as it does the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel, Les Rallizes Denudes and Amon Duul II.

Beyond that, however, Last Shot at Heaven is another bold step forwards for Skullflower. As steeped as it is in the post-psychedelia of the early 70s, it doesn’t fully deviate from the deep, doomy metal thunder of its predecessor. But, more significantly, it also gives many a sideways glance at the grunge and shoegaze styles that were prevalent in the early nineties. More Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine than Slowdive and Nirvana, of course, but you can tell Bower has heard the merits of adding a sprinkle of catchiness and riffs into the torrent of noise and sludge. Opener “Caligula” may just be the most infectious, and blissful, Skullflower track ever. Ultimately, Last Shot at Heaven gets negatively compared to IIIrd Gatekeeper, a more complete musical statement, but it serves as a great indication of how fantastically consistent in their brilliance Skullflower were by this point. 


Obsidian Shaking Codex (Self-released, 1993, CD-R reissue on RRRecords)4409

Nothing, even Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, prepared me for Obsidian Shaking Codex. Those albums were great, magnificent even. OSC is on another plane altogether.

Almost literally. Obsidian Shaking Codex sounds like very little out there, and certainly not like anything released around the same time, again testament to how prescient and forward-thinking Skullflower were. I think it was discovering this album that made me realise that not only are Skullflower a fucking awesome band, but that actually they go beyond such platitudes and transcend all stereotypical notions of musical taste and quality. Obsidian Shaking Codex sets up the stall for just about every psych/drone/noise-metal band to have appeared since, taking the brittle exoskeleton of The Dead C and Les Rallizes Denudes, and anchoring it to a wall of post-modern, post-industrial noise before launching into newer, wilder, nastier and deeper sonic lands. Tracks like “Sir Bendalot”, the pummeling heavy metal opener, may seem familiarly heavy, in a Sabbath/Blue Cheer vein, but, stripped of coherent vocals and suffused with mysterious flute sounds, soon turn into weird, esoteric and unhinged musical explorations.

By “Circular Temple”, the second track, everything you may have been familiar with has collapsed. Not just Skullflower’s own sound, but British post-industrial music as a genre. Coil, Whitehouse and even Throbbing Gristle seem so very far away now. The track is essentially, beautifully, formless, an endless dirge of shuddering guitar noise, in which riffs, improvs and meandering solos slalom around each other and drum fills only interrupt the murky flow on occasion, like interjections from a slumbering giant whose rest has been interrupted by the screes and squalls of Bower’s guitar. No, I don’t know what I’m on about either! Obsidian Shaking Codex does that to you – its awkward grace and deep, dark drones will have you dreaming of windy barrows and Tolkien-esque vistas, but ones that are totally dominated by sinister shadows, gnarled tree trunks and whispering ghosts. By the album’s end, the frenetic post-rock, post-fusion -fuck it, post-everything!- 25-minute leviathan that is “Smoke Jaguar”, you find yourself drifting in a fog of sound. It isn’t quite noise, not quite ambient, not quite drone, not quite metal. It’s beyond all of those genres, a true artistic triumph, which Skullflower would often struggle to replicate later in their career, but which would also flash through all their releases here on, and was already hovering like a shadow over previous albums, notably Xaman, IIIrd Gatekeeper and Last Shot at Heaven. Obsidian Shaking Codex is the album they really nailed it on, and the one that would make even great metal-that-aren’t-metal acts like SUNN O))) seem slightly derivative. 


A masterpiece in other words.


Carved Into Roses (VHF, 1994)

Skullflower signed to psychedelic drone label VHF for this release, who would also release This Is Skullflower, a mini-trend that perhaps highlights the band’s slow shift (already hinted at on Last Shot at Heaven) away from doom-laden noise-metal towards more esoteric, trippy and psyched-up musical shores.

At this point, I am seriously running out of superlative terms to describe the sounds Matt Bower and his acolytes (by now even superb bassist Anthony DiFranco had left, so it was just Bower and drummer Stuart Dennison, plus guest appearances from Whitehouse’s Phillip Best, Russell Smith and Simon Wickham-Smith) were coming up with. It seems in fact that each release was purposely conjured up to surpass its predecessor and, whilst Carved into Roses probably had too hard an act to follow in Obsidian Shaking Codex, it at least represents a massive leap forwards from all their other previous albums that it remains one of Skullflower’s most important statements. 

Some critics have -erroneously, I think- said that Carved into Roses represents a “mellowing” of the Skullflower sound. Whilst the crunching post-riffage of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Obsidian Shaking Codex‘s molten noise are indeed (mostly) set aside, the idea that Carved into Roses is more ambient or “quieter” than its predecessors is, frankly, ludicrous.

But it is more sophisticated, more thoughtful and, ultimately, even more adventurous. Five years before Japanese genius Merzbow showed the smart side of harsh noise on Door Open at 8am, Skullflower were doing the same for metal with Carved into Roses, by incorporating the usually intimidating structures of free-form jazz into their monolithic metal crunch. They once again throw a wee curve ball on opener “Pipe Dream”, which could be straight out of Last Shot At Heaven with its doom/drone guitar mulch, bursts of feedback and stark vibe, although hints of the mayhem to come can be heard in Stuart Dennison’s scattered drumming and some spookily industrial vocal snippets. But by “The Rose Wallpaper”, Dennison is conjuring up marching band patterns and, out of nowhere, as Bower excoriates his guitar in masochistic metallic bursts of fury, a lonesome, strangled saxophone blearily attempts a garbled solo. It dips in and out of the mix, in time to the accelerations and decelerations of Dennison’s increasingly free-form pounding of the toms, and its intrusion into the world of Skullflower is as startling as it is welcome. The more unstructured nature of “The Rose Wallpaper”, “Shiny Birds of Doom” or “Metallurgical King” (all three contenders for the imaginary title of ‘Best Skullflower track ever’) not only make Carved Into Roses stand out as a truly masterful melding of jazz/improv and metal, but also showcase the increased subtlety and sophistication of Dennison and Bower as composers and musicians. “Metallurgical King”, which seems to pick up where “The Rose Wallpaper” left off, is a particularly mighty slab of free-form noise, with bonkers tremolo and the kind of sax mayhem Peter Brotzmann would be proud of.

As for the claims that it isn’t heavy… I can admit it is no longer a cruncher, in the Butthole Surfers/Sabbath mold. But the atmosphere on these tracks is easily as choking and menacing as on any of the Obsidian Shaking Codex ones, Best’s voice often descending into a tortured primal scream, whilst Bower and Dennison alternate expertly between hard-hitting free-form pummelers and dragging, inching doom plods. Such shifts in pace, power and tempo are mastered expertly and, if anything, Carved Into Roses is one of Skullflower’s heaviest albums ever. The follow-up, Infinityland is also a cracker, and both have recently been reissued as a triple CD set, along with a disc of singles.

This Is Skullflower (VHF,1996) 4415

This would be the last album Skullflower would release before a 7-year hiatus (following swiftly on the heels of a slightly rag-bag collection of shorter tracks, outtakes and covers called Transformer, also released in ’96). Between this and Carved Into Roses, the duo did release two other full releases, Argon (Freek, 1995) and Infinityland (HeadDirt, 1995), neither of which I’ve been able to get hold of, sadly.

I would be keen to check out both those records because This Is Skullflower represents such a dramatic shift from the sound of Carved Into Roses, that it would be nice to get an idea of what came before to see if there is any continuity.

Essentially, TIS sees them taking the idea of free jazz grasped at on Carved Into Roses, and fucking running the distance with it. It is indeed much mellower and atmospheric than their previous output, even in the track titles – “Lounge”, “Creaky Rigging”, “Glider”… But don’t be fooled into thinking that it therefore is less interesting or arresting. Skullflower continue to step boldly into new territories, bringing in piano and strings, whilst pursuing their exploration of the limitations and possibilities of their established drums and guitars. On “Lounge”, Dennison pushes the free-jazz boat out even further, coming on like a latter-day Han Bennink, whilst Bower’s searing guitar improv is offset by jarring piano motifs. It’s a textured and unusual piece, and things get even better on “Creaky Rigging”, which duly lives up to its name thanks to Tony Conrad-esque violin drones set over what sounds like a woozy dobro or sitar and far-off, hazy guitar lines. It’s easily the best track on the album, redolent of such great tantric drone/psych bands as Vibracathedral Orchestra and the pioneering work of European bands such as Parson Sound and Yatha Sidhra. Heady stuff indeed, Skullflower going hippy, if you like.

Which may in many ways be the album’s only real flaw. The quality, as usual, is phenomenal, in terms of musicality and composition, but some of the dark, paranoid atmospheres of previous albums have succumbed to the experimentation, it seems. Maybe, just this once, Skullflower gave too much to the cerebral where before there was always just enough instinct and spleen to get the absolutely perfect balance. Either way, it’s still a fucking good album, but perhaps Bower was right to call it quits for a while…

Though it would have been magic to see where exploring the sound of the album’s other stand-out track, the drone epic “The Pirate Ship of Reality is Moving Out…” could have led the band…


Exquisite Fucking Boredom (tUMULt, 2003)

After a 7-year gap, during which Matthew Bower parted company with Stuart Dennison and dedicated his inspirations to a revived Total and his new outfits Sunroof! and Hototogisu, Skullflower returned, like a phoenix resurrected in flames. I can imagine there was some trepidation, and a shed-load of expectation, among fans at the time and so it is perhaps fitting that Exquisite Fucking Boredom is probably the most accessible of the new-look Skullflower albums. Ease’em in gently, eh Matt?


Exquisite Fucking Boredom essentially feels like a dual continuation of what Bower was doing on Last Shot at Heaven, but filtered through the trippier textures and hazy drones of This Is Skullflower. The result is an album that is both heavy, showcasing Bower’s relentless guitar assault, and blissfully psychedelic, in a fucked-up, Brainticket way. Most of it is taken up by the 4-part magnum opus “Celestial Highway”, which takes a funkily ambling sixties’ garage-psych rhythm base (think a more monolithic Doors or Thirteenth Floor Elevators) and runs with it over nearly an hour, albeit one divided into segments. Head music in the extreme, as the drums (credits are hard to come by for much of Skullflower’s output, but apparently, this is one of the occasional latter-period albums to feature Stuart Dennison, as well as additional guitarist Mark Burns -for the unusually-prominent riffs?- and bassist Steve Martin) send things cantering metronomically and minimalistically along with bloody-minded determination, much as drummer Werner Diermaier did for Faust on their magnificent collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate, which leaves Bower and Burns free to belch out dirty, fat riffs that jingle and jangle whilst maintaining their metal edge, before throwing up a miasma of wah-wahing free-form noise over the top. Somewhere in the mix there’s also an ever-droning organ, just to ram home the sense of sheer elegiac spaciness, should you need it.

If this is boredom, then I want to be bored more often! It’s easily Skullflower’s grooviest, sexiest and most liberated album, without any of the intellectual inhibitions of This Is Skullflower, but still maintaining a hazy, psychedelic vibe that means it’s not just a throw-back to the early nineties. Its only flaw perhaps is that it would have worked better with just the “Celestial Highway” suite, as the other two tracks, “Saturn” and “Return to Forever” don’t really add anything to the album. But that’s a small quibble. With Exquisite Fucking Boredom, Matthew Bower announced that Skullflower was back in a big way, and he has not looked back since. Lucky us!  
317785
Orange Canyon Mind (Crucial Blast, 2005)

On the second album since his “comeback” as Skullflower, Matthew Bower followed in the footsteps of Exquisite Fucking Boredom, in that Orange Canyon Mind feels at times like it’s a refreshing, or post-digital update, of his previous sound. Exquisite Fucking Boredom seemed to tap into the nascent heavy psych trend of Oneida, Colour Haze and Comets on Fire, whilst still maintaining a darker undercurrent and taste for much more intense, violent and improvised guitar noise, as had been Skullflower’s modus operandi since BirthdeathOrange Canyon Mind sees Bower, accompanied by a couple of guests on guitar and occasional drums, incorporate harsh electronic sounds, but not as some throwback to the power electronics scene Skullflower evolved out of, but rather as an echo of the glitch and harsh electronica espoused by the Editions Mego label and artists like Ryoji Ikeda and -more harshly- Kevin Drumm. Of course, whilst still indulging in fuzzed and distorted guitars and deep heavy metal textures.

Orange Canyon Mind is therefore one of Skullflower’s most varied and eclectic albums, certainly among their post-2003 output, which is enjoyable, but also possibly undermines its consistency a bit. The exquisite title track feels like Neu! on downers, a pulsating “motorik” back-beat being offset against a dense wall of guitar pyrotechnics. “Annihilating Angel”, in which shuddering glitchtronica textures battle with a never-ending wah solo, is another one of the band’s great moments, a dense, punishing, unforgiving masterpiece of atmosphere and volume, that shows that Bower has lost none of his ability to oppress and terrify. 

Later tracks seem to jerk between such monstrously claustrophobic drone/noise workout, and more “traditional” (in the loosest sense of the word!) post-metal plodders, with prominent wah guitar and meandering subdued percussion, as on “Vampire’s Breath” and “Ghost Ice Aliens”, both full-blooded sludgy rockers that again evoke the heavier end of modern psychedelia, such as Serpentina Satelite. “Goat of a Thousand Young”, meanwhile, is a creepy industrial-electronic piece, perhaps suggesting in texture, if not actual style, the direction Bower would take on Tribulation.

The eclecticism of Orange Canyon Mind certainly underlines the musical vitality and strength of this singular band, but at times plays against it in terms of consistency. That said, I’d still call it required listening, if nothing else then for “Annihilating Angel”, “Starry Wisdom”, “Orange Canyon Mind” and the overall atmosphere of doom and darkness (and above all because it’s a fucking Skullflower album!).

Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006)

When you hit the “play” button on your stereo, Tribulation doesn’t start so much as keep going. The opening track “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” seems to surge out of the speakers mid-riff, if such momentous noise can be called a riff, and you feel like you have stumbled, unheeded, onto a rehearsal or, perhaps more aptly, some weird, menacing ritual. This is Skullflower (here just Matthew Bower on guitar, occasional electronics and sporadic percussion) reaching heights of extreme sonic mayhem, and the only album Bower has released under this moniker that could more or less comfortably be classified in the “noise” genre.

Indeed, at times, this could almost be the sort of wall noise espoused so eloquently and dramatically by the likes of The Rita, Vomir and Werewolf Jerusalem. Although, unlike those acts, Bower’s emphasis remains on guitar and minimal electronics, plus a healthy dose of SUNN O)))-esque doom atmosphere, albeit buried in some of the harshest sounds yet to come from Skullflower. “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” is a case in point, a monolithic cathedral of guitar feedback, raging distortion and high-pitched screes. All forward momentum, in the traditional musical sense, is lost, the piece just sits, static and angry, and unloads. It’s impenetrable. And the whole album follows this deranged model, from the more brittle rasping of “Saragossa”, in which a choked guitar solo is subsumed by a wall of high-pitched distortion, to the feedback overload and doom-laden chords of “Dwarf Thunderbolt”, via the chattering electronic screes of “Dying Venice”. Tribulation is an ear-shattering onslaught that stretches over an hour before ending as abruptly as it started, and one of the most uncompromising albums in the Skullflower catalogue, and indeed of any band, ever.

But even as the different tracks melt into one another without pause, the shifts I mentioned above, as the guitars recede ever-so-slightly to let in clatters of digital noise, for example, mean that to call Tribulation a noise album would pretty much be as redundant as calling it a metal one. Tribulation can actually be seen as a release from such categorisation, as Bower uses his guitar noise to channel dark, mysterious and occult themes in a purely abstract manner. Releasing the shackles in this way takes Bower’s sound and vision beyond the conventions of metal, doom and drone that he had already radicalised from the first notes of Form Destroyer, de-contextualising these genres by unhinging them into pure harsh noise. In Matthew Bower’s pursuit of the fine balance between bliss and assault, of the terrifying sublime, something hindsight shows he’s probably been working on since the eighties but has been crystallising since Orange Canyon Mind, he quite probably never came as close as he does on Tribulation.

Pure Imperial Reform (Turgid Animal, 2008) & The Paris Working (23/4/2009) (self-released, 2009)

In the wake of Tribulation, Bower would kick into overdrive, with a slew of limited edition and/or live releases, such as Abyssic Lowland Hiss and Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Die, often self-released. Most of these are hard to track down, and, whisper it, probably not essential to the appreciation of the Skullflower story.

However, I have managed to get my hands two of these off-the-cuff releases, both live ones, and, for a purist such as myself, they have a “holy grail”-esque feeling, mostly because I have not yet had the chance to see Skullflower live and worship at the altar of Matt Bower and his guitar (I was fortunate to see him as part of his duo Voltigeurs, which was pretty sublime in itself, and certainly an extension of the Skullflower sound of recent years).

Of the two, I ever-so-slightly prefer the more recent Paris Working (23/4/2009) CD-R, which features a full band line-up, including Dennison, plus fellow guitarist Lee Stokoe (of Culver) and Voltigeurs’ Samantha Davis, who appears to play strings and guitar. It was released in the wake of the superb Malediction album (more on it below), which also featured the aforementioned line-up, and of which this is very much a companion piece. As a live experience, I find it captivating. The opening seconds feature the muffled sounds of the band gearing up, but within moments they have gone from this near-silence to a perfect wall of sound, in which muted violin drones line up alongside buzzing, shapeless guitar noise, all underpinned by Dennison’s shifting, shaking, scattered back-beat. I am always in awe of the latter’s ability to display the deftness of touch of a seasoned jazz man whilst keeping things heavy and manic at the same time. As such, The Paris Working feels very much like a pure improv session, as if Skullflower are channeling the spirits of Derek Bailey and Throbbing Gristle into their darkly metallic drone edifice. It’s another hardy reminder of the band’s ability to meld volume with elegance and mystery. Oh, to have been in the audience that night!

Pure Imperial Reform in contrast, feels slightly less coherent, though it is certainly no less virulent and soaring. In the grand tradition of Harmonia‘s Live 1974 album or the likes of Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino, the audience supposedly present for this show is inaudible, either drowned out by the pure wall of sound, or too enraptured to speak. In the tradition of most recent Skullflower albums, there is no starting point on the album, even in the live setting, the disc just fading into a deluge of guitar feedback, from the twin assault of Bower and Lee Stokoe, his most frequent post-2003 collaborator. Three tracks here, rather unhelpfully merged into one on the CD, which makes differentiation and appreciation of each track’s intricacies a bit tricky. Essentially, Pure Imperial Reform follows on from Tribulation, with noisy guitar squalls completely unhinged from any rhythmic or traditionally melodic frame that could allow listeners to contextualise and absorb what they’re hearing. Instead, like the best harsh noise, this is music that you are forced to endure, and then lose yourself in, as Bower and Stokoe fumble their way through unending solos and feedback. The Wire writers have made a lot of Bower’s apparently bloody-minded desire to conjure up some sort of darkly ritualistic, tantric and cosmic transcendence in his music, the aforementioned “terrifying sublime”, which goes beyond the noise and black metal Skullflower originated out of, as if tying My Bloody Valentine to SUNN O))). I still feel he achieved this best on Tribulation, but Pure Imperial Reform and The Paris Working are great examples of it happening before the eyes of an adulating audience (turned followers?). Lucky bastards.

Taste The Blood of the Deceiver (Not Not Fun, 2008)

Taste the Blood of the Deceiver (what a title!) followed hot on the heels of the Tribulation-esque Desire for a Holy War (Utech Records, 2008), which didn’t do much for me, seeming to be just a set of outtakes from its predecessor, but which I probably need to track down a CD copy of at some point (the artwork is stunning!). This time, Bower and Stokoe rock up on weird American label Not Not Fun, home of Pocahaunted and, more aptly, perhaps, Robedoor. Recently, the label has become the home of America’s foremost hypnagogic pop and neo-New Age artists, but Taste the Blood of the Deceiver sees Skullflower continue to probe at the sublimation of brutal noise that has so preoccupied Matthew Bower of late. The Wire’s David Keenan has noted that recent Skullflower works, worshipping at the altar of that most heathen of instrumental gods, the electric guitar, are increasingly tainted by black metal of the sort popularised in Norway in the early nineties, those stark, aggressive, saturated paeans to diseased minds and arcane rituals. As such, even if a lot of Skullflower’s music is anchored in a noise tradition, it tends towards a sweeping, dramatic post-goth theatricality.
Such ambition was evident on Tribulation, but the Wagnerian majesty was dissolved into a brittle noise texture that only really found an echo in black metal via the portentous song titles. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver really feels like metal music untethered, like a fire-damaged boat drifting aimlessly through deep, hostile waters. Bower and Stokoe remove the human sense of self that, for all its dark musings and satanic worship, is at the heart of black metal. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is portentous and dramatic, yes, but Skullflower’s take on the guitar sound, equally lo-fi and enveloping, with the simultaneous never-ending emphasis on certain notes and edification of impenetrable sound walls, and the disconnected, abstract and sparing use of vocals elevate the sound on this album to something Keenan has even compared to “magick”. Whilst I do not know enough about such occultist things to properly analyze such a take, I remain in awe at the transcendent power of this music. Along with Tribulation, Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is my favourite post-reformation Skullflower album.

Shortly after this, Bower released a monstrous 3-CD set called Circulus Vitiosus Deus on Turgid Animal. A limited edition, it has since sold out and is near-impossible to find, an especial downer for me as I would relish the chance to check out the supposedly beautiful artwork and packaging. Sad face…

Malediction (Second Layer Records, 2009)

Malediction is something of a curve ball, really, featuring, as I mentioned, a full band line-up, which really is not something seen on a Skullflower album since the mid-nineties (previous noughties albums tended to be composed of Matthew Bower + one or more collaborators, and Tribulation was a solo affair). However, anyone expecting Malediction to be a step backwards would be mistaken – for starters, like just about every other Skullflower album since Orange Canyon Mind, this one also starts in the midst of the maelstrom. Bower’s tendency to refuse to allow build-up or gradual immersion into his world (even on live albums, as Pure Imperial Reform showed) is remarkable, and a key part of his current musical exploration of late. In many ways, it reflects the misanthropy of noise music, a genre he has neither properly extirpated himself from, yet equally never sat comfortably in. Thus, where Whitehouse or Prurient might articulate said misanthropy coherently and aggressively, Bower’s reduction of the human interaction in his music (he often -though not here- refuses to credit himself or others on Skullflower recordings) seems more distant, metaphysical. In a pursuit of something more elegiac, Bower has diffused the humane behind a wall of saturation and feedback, but rather than a rejection of the humane in music, it seems to be an attempt at transporting the psyche of his listeners to somewhere more esoteric, and celestial. Whether he achieves this is ultimately down to you.
It is no different on Malediction, though the heavily-prominent presence of Stuart Dennison’s ramshackle drums, Samantha Davies’ distorted strings and Lee Stokoe’s added layers of guitar; plus a grimly apocalyptic quote from John Webster in the packaging, give this album a warmth Bower had until now seemed determined to annihilate. I do not share The Wire reviewer Nick Richardson’s belief that the dramatic track titles and doom-laden ambiance of this album are, and I quote, “silly”. I do not know enough about the occult, magick or satanism to properly comment on Bower’s approach to them, but my feeling is that this is serious “head” music, the kind of attempt to conjure dark and primordial forces that has long dominated the metal and drone scenes, particularly in the US, but which stems from traditions going back centuries. Skullflower, being British, seem more detached, as they disconnect their sound from clear references, preferring to let themselves -and us- be absorbed by the music. Not silly, try transcendent. A great album, a bit of a UFO, between the free metal of Obsidian Shaking Codex and more recent explorations in black metal doom.

Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament (Neurot, 2010)

The Skullflower formula of recent years has now, you’ll have gathered, been well established, as dis-articulated guitar noise is built up into walls of unstoppable, indifferent sound, which are then launched, untethered and unreferenced, on the band’s audiences. Increasingly, this has seen Bower blur the lines between Skullflower and his other acts, be they Hototogisu or, more recently, Voltigeurs, his guitar noise duo with Samantha Davies. In fact, Voltigeurs (whom I had the pleasure, nay, delight of seeing live) are very similar in sound to the Skullflower of Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament, but with perhaps a more “wall noise” structure. But I digress…
The concern I have is that Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament feels somewhat like a closing statement, first of all through its incredible length (nearly two hours spread over two CDs), and also because it seems to be an attempt to crystallize the dark ritual nature of recent Skullflower albums to an almost absolutist degree, as tracks meld into one another and any distinction between instruments is rendered impossible. It still retains the grandeur of the black metal that supposedly inspires Bower these days, but he pushes the formlessness, the impenetrability, to the nth degree, making Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament his most difficult album yet. The somber, literary track titles (“Enochian Tapestries”, “City of Dis”, “Blackened Angel Wings Scythe The Billowing Void”) hint at occult arcana, but I am happy to just let the noise absorb and wash over me. I hope that this will not be the last Skullflower album (and have no reason to believe it will be), and, until Matthew Bower next decides to unload a dark, tantrically satanic sonic ritual on my adoring ears, I’ll be waiting, clutching my Skullflower CDs, assaulting my senses with the doom-laden metal of Xaman, the hysterical free-jazz-cum-hard-heavy of Carved Into Roses and the sheets of transcendent noise of Tribulation, a senseless grin on my face. ALL HAIL THE GUITAR, THE AMP, AND MATTHEW BOWER!!!

Conclusion

I’m aware that this long, rambling, repetitive and probably incoherent piece maybe does not do justice to the majesty, elegance and fiery fury of Skullflower. I’m aware that there may be historical inaccuracies and gaping holes that all my web scouring could not enable to rectify. I can only hope that, one day, I might be able to meet the people involved in this magnificent journey, and interview them to get the insider’s view on the Skullflower story. Until then -and many might argue that the mystery is part of this singular band’s appeal- I can only give my honest appraisal of what I know. Which is that Skullflower, for all their familiar references in industrial, power electronics, doom, shoegaze, noise and black metal, are a unique proposition, the sincere, disturbed and metaphysical expression of one man’s gloriously primeval vision. And if words like “tantric” or “transcendent” mean fuck-all to you, then whip out a copy of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Malediction, turn the dial up to maximum, and allow the sonic genius of Skullflower to sweep you away on a river of noise. I promise you won’t regret it.

josephpb97

From the Vault: 2010 In Review

2010 In Review

I’m a big fan of the www.rateyourmusic.com website, as it’s a great place to discover new music. It also allows one to create lists of album, and below is my top 30 for 2010, a great year.

1
An Ark for the Listener

Philip Jeck

An Ark for the Listener (2010)

Predictably, having been one of the highlights of ATP, and a consistently excellent composer and artist, Philip Jeck delivered an absolute masterpiece, perhaps his greatest work yet on CD. Inspired by poet Gerald Manley Hopkins’ work The Wreck of the Deutschland, an ode to 5 nuns who perished at sea, An Ark for the Listener is a dense, wistful album, where Jeck’s broken down turntable explorations and avant-garde, droning synth melodies create a rich, mysterious and oblique tapestry.

2
Psychical

Ensemble Economique

Psychical (2010)

Dark and cinematic, Ensemble Economique’s exercise in giallo-style horror soundtrack mixed with dub, hip-hop and avant-rock, was one of the most ambitious, challenging and atmospheric H-pop releases of the year. Perhaps it’s the dire economic and socio-political climate, but the influence of horror movies loomed large in 2010, and this was a great example of an intelligent, musical use of this influence.

3
Location Momentum

Eleh

Location Momentum (2010)

Deep listening in the Pauline Oliveros sense of the word, the music of mysterious drone artist Eleh is as hard to pin down, assess and comprehend (in the traditional sense) as the individual who creates it. Anonymity is key to Eleh’s aesthetic, but the core beauty resides in the dense, minimalist and hypnotic nature of the music, as listless wave generators and stripped-down synth lines contort, fill and caress the ether.

4
Liberation Through Hearing

Demdike Stare

Liberation Through Hearing (2010)

The excellent Mancunian duo continued their exploration of arcane and sinister textures and references through hypnotic synth patterns, warped dub and wispy electronica. Liberation Through Hearing is the second installment in a bewitching (the word is apt) trilogy that has cemented Demdike Stare’s position at the forefront of British hauntological music.

5
Going Places

Yellow Swans

Going Places (2010)

Tragically, this is Yellow Swans’ swansong, but it may be their best album to date. Reining in their harshest tendencies, they delivered an expansive, cinematographic masterpiece of noisy drone, its mournful synth lines adding depth to the crunch and grind. The result? An elegiac and haunting addition to the noise canon.

6
Returnal

Oneohtrix Point Never

Returnal (2010)

Much more consistent and unified than previous releases, Returnal is Oneohtrix Point Never, aka Daniel Lopatin’s arrival on the big stage and he delivers big time. As well as his new-age-tinted excursions into synth-heavy electro-drone, with hints of Tangerine Dream and even Vangelis, which on Returnal are even more compact, yet emotionally-charged, than before, he also opens with a blistering noise-drone freak out that was as astounding as it was unexpected.

7
Waving Goodbye

Sex Worker

Waving Goodbye (2010)

A late addition to my 2010 list was Sex Worker’s fabulous second album, a haunting and disturbing critique in music of the sex trade. Intelligently using sexy, woozy dance tunes, which are then overlaid by raw, aching or deadpan vocals, Sex Worker inteeligently evokes the drama, pain and despair of this modern-day slave trade…

8
Untitled

Hype Williams

Untitled (2010)

Blurring the lines emphatically between hip-hop, art-pop, dance, dubstep and even disco, Hype Williams are a mysterious London-based duo whose eclectic debut is like a weird, half-dreamlike, half-nightmarish trawl through nocturnal streets with the iPod set to shuffle. Hysterically over-the-top, it nonetheless preserves H-pop’s initial spirit of ambiguity and nostalgia, whilst remaining resolutely forward-thinking.

9
Renonce

Vomir

Renonce (2010)

After a decade of genre cross-pollination and soul-searching, noise was returned to its harshest, most abstract form with the emergence of Harsh Noise Walls, and French artist Vomir’s Renonce is the perfect, hour-long demonstration of the sub-genre’s capacity for sonic assault and sensory deprivation. As much a sound/art experiment as it is an album, Renonce is overwhelming, terrifying and, ultimately, hypnotic.

10
Dagger Paths

Forest Swords

Dagger Paths (2010) [EP]

Olde English Spelling Bee emerged in 2010 as one of the record labels for hypnagogic pop, and Dagger Paths was probably the company’s stand-out release. Though short, it perfectly encapsulated Forest Swords’ oblique combination of brittle, nocturnal dub and haunting post-noise atmospherics.

11
Patience

The Dead C

Patience (2010)

The New Zealanders are veterans of the noise/avant-rock scene, and each release of theirs is an event in itself. Patience sees them pushing out into free-form, improvised drone-rock, with extended guitar workouts and monolithic rhythm patterns evoking krautock giants like Ash Ra Tempel, or the unrelenting sub-metal of Skullflower and Les Rallizes Denudes. Pure rock at its best!

12
Music for Real Airports

The Black Dog

Music for Real Airports (2010)

It may be a rather unfair rebuke to Brian Eno’s seminal Music for Airports, but this remains an essential album, a troubling concept album about the soullessness and emotional alienation of airports. The synth melodies are dark, the sound effects cold and subtly jarring. A nightmarish sonic trawl through an airport, between endless queues, unhelpful staff and deserted waiting lounges, its claustrophobic atmosphere was almost unrivaled in UK electronic music last year.

13
Suburban Tours

Rangers

Suburban Tours (2010)

Highly praised, Rangers’ debut is a seminal piece of hypnagogic pop-rock, a reverie depicting sun-bleached suburban eighties’ neighbourhoods, portrayed with a mixture of nostalgia and disgust. Latter day power pop of the Black Star variety is refracted through wobbly vocal effects and subtle inflections of jarring post-noise to create a beguiling and ultimately catchy gem of an album.

14
Love Is a Stream

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma

Love Is a Stream (2010)

Shoegaze music is pretty much dead these days, weighted down by the shadow of My Bloody Valentine and the unjustified savaging by critics back in the day. By California-based musician Cantu-Ledesma has updated the genre almost single-handedly here, stripping back the excesses of those 90s bands to focus on the emotions and the drone. Blissful and hazy, Love Is A Stream takes the spirit of shoegaze, but blasts it into the post-noise age.

15
Failing Lights

Failing Lights

Failing Lights (2010)

Mike Connelly of Hair Police and Wolf Eyes released his full official solo debut as Failing Lights in 2010. Reining in the harsh noise of his other projects, he recreates the dank, dusty atmospheres of vintage American horror, overlaying throbbing bass lines and sinister drones with clanking noise effects and whispered, ghostly vocal snippets.

16
On Patrol

Sun Araw

On Patrol (2010)

Sun Araw (Cameron Stallones) has long been at the forefront of the H-Pop scene, and here takes his awkward, wobbly neo-psychedelia into darker territories with On Patrol, with its futuristic neon cover and Blade Runner ambiance. Dense and peculiar, the music on On Patrol features acid-drenched guitars alongside clunky synth patterns and distorted, mashed-up vocals. Dub and psych never sounded this great together.

17
Le Noise

Neil Young

Le Noise (2010)

In the midst of all these youthful explorers of noise and fucked-up pop, Neil Young stood like a statue to the old guard… and delivered an album of noise and fucked-up pop! With help from producer Daniel Lanois, Young created a brief solo album where his aged voice and grungy guitar were double-tracked and looped over themselves to create a ghostly folk-metal orchestra. He still refuses to fade away, but has a way to go before he burns out, by the sound of things.

18
Bloodlines

The North Sea

Bloodlines (2010)

Who would have thought power electronics would be back in 2010? Actually, with noise music getting more and more coverage, even on the Pitchfork website, over the last decade, maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Whatever the case, Bloodlines is a dark, frightening and enveloping canvas of sound, steeped in arcane lore and heathen noise.

19
Porcelain Opera

Rene Hell

Porcelain Opera (2010)

Modernising old-fashioned analogue synth drones was not just the domain of Oneohtrix Point Never, as former noisician Jeff Witscher, aka Rene Hell unleashed his paranoid, icy vision on this fabulous debut. Any of Daniel Lopatin’s warmth and nostalgia are stripped away on Porcelain Opera, replaced by crackling, minimalist drones and shuddering percussion.

20
Plays Wagner

Indignant Senility

Plays Wagner (2010)

Evidently inspired by The Caretaker’s approach to deconstructing old vinyl, Indignant Senility nonetheless created a singular, haunting (and haunted) work, using ancient recordings of works by Richard Wagner and ladling on the effects and the haze to deliver an album of dense, nocturnal drone.

21
Gravitoni

Pan Sonic

Gravitoni (2010)

2010 was a good year for veteran electronic duos, with Autechre and The Chemical Brothers also releasing new (and, in Autechre’s case, well-received) albums. Pan Sonic trumped the lot though with this brilliantly unceremonious swansong album, in which thundering club beats were allied to vicious power electronics, proving that whilst time may have dampened their desire to continue the Pan sonic brand, it did nothing to halt their creative spark.

22
Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus

Cosmogramma (2010)

His Los Angeles album was among the top records of 2008, and Cosmogramma will always pale by comparison. But, despite its boundless ambition that takes in just about any genre imaginable, from free jazz to freak rock to dubstep, it still maintains that typically Flying Lotus talent for scattered, ruthlessly infectious beats and tunes.

23
Causers of This

Toro Y Moi

Causers of This (2010)

“Chillwave” may be one of the dafter genre names I’ve heard of late (alongside “glo-fi”), but for all of acts like Toro Y Moi’s taste for cheesy MOR influences and disco-inflected soft rock, there’s no denying Chaz Bundick’s knack for catchy pop tunes, glorious post-Beach Boys melodic hooks and lush vocal performances.

24
Triangulation

Scuba

Triangulation (2010)

Dubstep is, if I admit it, somewhat on the wane, as new acts embrace garish funk and glow-in-the-dark bleeps and bloops to try and come up with something new. But Scuba reminded all of the glory of vintage garage/dub, effortlessly evoking Burial or Kode 9 whilst retaining a unique new voice with his darkly urban electronica and thumping beats.

25
North

Darkstar

North (2010)

If dubstep was struggling to maintain its voice in a constantly-evolving world, Hyperdub once again showed the way by signing artists that explored fresh and innovative ground. Darkstar are the perfect example, their synth/programming-heavy electronic pop bearing hints of eighties synth-pop, but above all carrying a post-modern, despondent vibe of romantic urban alienation, somewhere between Burial’s nocturnal haze and the bright lights of Human League-esque dance.

26
King Night

Salem

King Night (2010)

Another new genre reared its head in 2010, “witch house”, but, unlike “chillwave”, this is actually remarkably tricky to define, as walls of glorious synth noise (a la M83) are offset by jerky dubstep beats and murky sub-sub-Spaceape vocal murmuring. The mix is uneven at times, but with King Night, Salem announced themselves as a band to watch this decade.

27
Before Today

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Before Today (2010)

The H-pop craze propelled maverick Californian hippy Ariel Pink straight into the limelight, and he responded with his best album, and his first on a major label and with a backing band. Rather than water down his oddball sound, it enhances it, as glorious pop tunes are jostled and jarred by unusual tempo shifts and bizarre nonsense poetry lyrics.

28
Does It Look Like I'm Here?

Emeralds

Does It Look Like I’m Here? (2010)

They were much better live but Does It Look Like I’m Here is a cracking album, more concise and focused than 2009’s What Happened?, and featuring several breathtaking melodies and passages of lush electronic drone.

29
Presidence

Excepter

Presidence (2010)

Excepter are probably unique, and their music is suitably undefinable. They may be friends of indy faves Animal Collective, but there is something darker and more troubling about Excepter’s sprawling, heavily-improvised post-noise electronica. Presidence is overlong, but worth persisting with.

30
Splazsh

Actress

Splazsh (2010)

Splazsh was The Wire’s album of the year and, whilst I (evidently) won’t go that far, I still think Actress displays here that he is one of Britain’s most forward-thinking, adventurous and inventive producers, his intelligent mixture of just about every post-drum’n’bass dance music pointing the way for the coming years.